The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

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Cannonball Read V: The Chronology of Water: A Memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch

By Leanna Moxley | Book Reviews | February 7, 2013 | Comments ()


The Chronology of Water moves through time and space like ocean waves, or like the shifting of memory. Mostly while I was reading it I drank it down like water, gulp after gulp, every word. A lot of terrible things happen, and Lidia, in the book, is the originator of a lot of those terrible things. But she writes them fiercely, with shining words, so I could say yes to all of it. Until I got to this one part. In this part she is a visiting writer at a university where she meets a beautiful man who is a student of hers. They proceed to have mind-blowing sex. Also, he is married. And then they decide to have a child. She describes herself walking through the halls of the university where she works, her belly swelling, smirking at the prudish academics who would eventually fire her.

I did not like this at all. My objections actually came from a strict moral sense I didn't know I was harboring. As I was reading I thought, how could this woman not know that she was making horrible decisions? Why would she knowingly hurt other people this way? Why would she be so wildly unprofessional?

A good word for Lidia Yuknavitch is "unrepentant." In her book she tells us her sins, but she does not ask for forgiveness. She doesn't even learn her lesson.

Why do we - why do I - look for that story of redemption in a memoir? I mean, it's a classic story, it's the hero's journey, it's Jesus Christ on the cross. But our real lives take no such narrative shape. I think we don't really look for the life story of someone else in memoirs, but instead, we look for a map to show us how to live our own lives. Who should we be? What unsettled me about this book is the fact that it is not a map at all.

Maybe that's the best thing about it. For instance, right now as I am writing this review, I am editing myself. Which of my thoughts about this book are the right ones to have? Which will people judge me for? How can I review this book in such a way that people will really like me? In fact, I find myself afraid of what Lidia herself would think of me. But that's not the point. Fear is not the point, approval is not the point. At least, not for Lidia.

In an interview, Yuknavitch said, "I wanted to leave the reader in a space where there was no repenting, transcendence, and forgiveness. I don't believe in the Christian narrative. So I left you there where I was. I left you, the reader, in the "space" of the grand fuck up. Because we all fuck up, and then we go forward, and maybe we get better and maybe we fuck up some more." She wrote her life. Here is how she tells it, whether you like it or not. Lidia, pregnant and smirking, striding through the halls of the university - I can't get that image out of my mind. And you know, I still don't like it all that much. But I'm pleased and amazed that she chose to write it exactly the way she did.

If I am left with an image of her swelling pregnant body, it is because this book is more than anything a body story, which means it dwells on the sensations of that body, and the pain it suffers. The book follows the body through intense pleasure, also, and through disgusting moments of humiliation. There is a lot of honesty to that, the kind of truth about existence that is worth reading, swallowing, worth taking inside your own mortal flesh.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and for more of Leanna Moxely's reviews, check out her blog, Book by Book.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Jannymac

    This is one of the difficulties that I have with reading a memoir, which is how much of it should be judged on the writing and how much on the person? Because I have a feeling that if we all sat down and wrote out our truist self, we would also be to varying degrees, irritating, frustrating, unlikeable, arrogant and ugly. And all of that would be mixed in with our angel selves -- the loving, kind, thoughtful parts. The best thing I can come up with to justify reading a difficult memoir is that you can at least admire the person's unvarnished, emotional bravery.

  • Yossarian

    I know exactly what you mean, Leanna. And I think the other commenters who have not read the book might be jumping to the wrong conclusions.

    For one thing, this book really does feature some amazing writing. Yuknavitch barrages you with feelings, sensations, textures, desires, pain, and a whole roller coaster of emotion and human experience. It's messy and unapologetic. There is shame and guilt but not so much contrition or self-reflection. The result feels more real, more human, but at the same time it feels unsatisfying and frustrating to a reader. You want to sympathize and root for her but she keeps interrupting that by being self destructive and stupid.

    I'm glad I read it, and I recommend it to anyone (with a caveat that it contains some pretty strong subject matter that, even on this site, at least bears mentioning). One reason to read books is to acquire the perspective of someone different. In many ways Yuknavitch is as different from me as it gets, but that makes it all the more fascinating to read such a raw and open account of her feelings. She isn't trying to justify those feelings or excuse them she's just trying to describe them to the best of her ability. So it's jarring and uncomfortable and unsympathetic but still fascinating and worth your consideration. She does what she is trying to do very well.

  • Gwyn773

    I think part of Yuknavitch's project with this book was an attempt to subvert some of the normal tropes and constructions of the memoir. She does that in a couple of ways, maybe most obviously by making it non-chronological, writing directly to the reader, etc. But I think that unsatisfying, unsympathetic, unapologetic quality to it is what makes it most interesting to me, especially because I think it was no accident. It's not an egotistical lack of awareness about how people might perceive her, but rather a deliberate choice to show herself that way.

  • -sal

    so it's more like Yucknabitch, badum tsss

  • Kballs

    Oooh, smug people are the absolute fucking WORST. Especially when they're coming from a self-defined moral high-ground the author seems to inhabit. I wouldn't have picked this up in a million years, but thank you for the review/warning.

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